Dawn Gorman reviews Jennie Farley
Indigo Dreams Publishing
For the Macbeth witches, Harry Potter and every wielder of spells in between, the act of casting a hex on someone is ultimately about control. And control is a word that comes to mind repeatedly in this, Jennie Farley’s second collection with Indigo Dreams, not simply in connection with its subject matter, but, and more specifically, with how a poet controls their material, and our response to it.
To begin towards the end of the book – where, to my mind, some of Farley’s strongest poems lie – Grandma Jenkins is specifically about spells, and opens intriguingly, inviting the reader in – ‘Grandma Jenkins stirs her porridge the wrong way’. What follows is a beguiling short story in couplet disguise; the details are well observed: a little girl, passing an old lady on her way to school, notes that Grandma Jenkins’ ‘eyes / are sharp as tin’, has ‘baccy breath’ and cackles – and wonders ‘Would she put a spell on me?’ But the poem ends mystifyingly weakly: ‘I haven’t yet turned into a rat / or an owl, but I go to school another way.’ I had rather hoped that my imagination would be corralled somewhere more intriguing.
Knives follows a similar pattern, snaring the reader’s attention with its arresting opening line ‘You feel in control throwing knives at your Mum’, and keeping it with vivid detail – ‘The sharp blades / send chips of red paint flying around her’ as the speaker practises her circus act, disquietingly unobserved by the rest of the troupe. Farley still has you in her grip as we reach the penultimate couplet ‘An inch to the right, and I’d slice off / an earring’, but the final three lines: ‘Or I could aim for the bull’s eye - / the exact spot on her forehead / between the eyes’ didn’t quite nail it as I’d hoped. Control of the reader is such a subtle, fragile thing – the repetition of ‘eye(s)’ is unfortunate (‘aim for the bull’ might have worked better) and losing the unnecessary ‘on her forehead’ would have kept a tighter grip on my response.
A poet’s control over the reader can, of course, be achieved without overt drama, and elsewhere, Farley uses subtlety with deft grace. Tea Candles – another short story masquerading as a poem – describes ‘Maud’, ‘the kind / of person should keep a cat’, ‘who went about helping herself / to things in shops’, stacked them in a ‘tottering tower’ in her front room, and kept ‘sherry in tiny glasses / to welcome visitors who never came’. It’s a keenly observed portrait of an oddball stereotype that turns, in the final stanza, to movingly hint at what might have caused the unravelling:
… no one would ever see inside
the airing cupboard on the landing,
each shelf heaped with bootees,
knitted baby bonnets, plastic
rattles of pink and blue.
Farley writes well about the elderly, particularly so in Pearls – a sonnet, loosely speaking, about her parents, memory, and grief. ‘They met at a tea dance, perfectly matched’ she begins, and delicately captures the couple’s mutual devotion: ‘In snapshots / they are always turned to each other’, preparing us for what are some of the book’s most hauntingly memorable lines: ‘The day he died, she wept, Who will / be here now to fasten my pearls?’ It’s another accomplished narrative piece, ending, satisfyingly this time, on the anniversary of his death, with the mother, ‘a frail form in her old winter coat’ waltzing with her daughter among willows ‘to some ballroom music / only she can hear’.
So far, we have been in familiar, yet somehow ‘other’ worlds – more or less contemporary stories where magic hovers on the edge of the everyday. But a significant portion of Hex is taken up with the re-telling of old stories familiar because their protagonists – the likes of Salome, Jocasta, Penelope, Circe and Odysseus, Hera, Hyppolyta – are safety tucked away in our cultural store cupboard. The retellings are from the women’s point of view and, while it’s perhaps unfair, it’s also impossible not to compare them with Carol Ann Duffy’s witty, satirical and complex versions of some of the same women in The World’s Wife. In fact, Farley does a reasonable job of it – I particularly like Hera, and the nice ring of authenticity in the details of her narrative about husband Zeus. She tells us ‘For eighteen years I polished his helmet, / sewed on gold braid, served him oysters / cooked in cream, artichokes, figs…’, and I enjoyed the unexpected swipe of the contemporary in her fantasising about seducing Zeus’s son, a ‘tender boy’, who would be ‘leaning on the bridge where / oleanders sweep down to the bank, / pulling on a roll-up’. But I did wonder why Farley chose to write about these characters, and with this particular angle, especially when she has such a rich stock of her own stories to tell. Is it simply (and, if so, depressingly) that poetry fashion dictates that we should? It certainly came as no surprise to also find the recently much-mused-upon Mary Anning here too, making me wonder what the palaeontologist would have made of repeated re-excavation of the same site. Farley’s poem, Stone Child, Bone Child, sees her narrating the facts without adding much that is new, before seemingly running out of steam in tandem with her subject, ending flatly with ‘But I am old now, / and too tired to deal with miracles.’ It’s a pity, because a pair of witty lines mid-poem made me laugh out loud: In the beginning was the Word, / and the word was ichthyosaurus’. It would have been a different poem, for sure – and a more boldly idiosyncratic one – if this couplet had been the poem’s opening gambit.
A whimsical humour is one of Farley’s chief strengths. She has a great line in titles – I Knitted You a Halo, The Day I Rescued a Merman, Meeting Jesus on the Beach – and an eye for the quirky serves her well. Cannibal Stew, for example, opens humorously:
My missionary great-uncle found
a severed toe in his hot-pot, and
not wishing to offend the tribal chief,
or displease God, he swallowed it.
We are then entertained with details of how this experience changed him, made him ‘almost raunchy’, saw him watch the chieftain’s fifteen wives’ ‘swaying rumps’, count how many times each day he had an erection, and, back home, made him lace the Communion wine with rum. It’s another narrative, and a fabulous one, but ends with what seems to be such deliberate bathos – the final line is ‘He suffered / problems with his dentures’ – that we begin to wonder if all those other flat endings were somehow intentional, too. If that’s the case, I’m at a loss to know why.
Farley beguiles with her ability to transplant the surreal into the everyday, and the everyday into the unfamiliar, but ultimately, her control over her material, and of her readers, is inconsistent. She is a natural, empathetic and witty storyteller, and it would be interesting, perhaps, to see how some of the poems in this collection might hold up to the light if explored in greater length, as prose.
Dawn Gorman runs community arts events and collaborates widely, with work turned into art, films and a symphony. Her most recent pamphlet, This Meeting of Tracks, was published in the Pushcart Prize-nominated four-poet collection, Mend & Hone.